On Lou Gehrig’s day, my brother – and best friend – faces ALS

My older brother Matt is my best friend and the strongest person I have ever met. We were born the same year, only 11 months apart, and we can’t be separated instantly. My parents sent me to kindergarten a year ago because they couldn’t imagine our class. We were in some of the same classes at school, played on the same sports teams, and since we were five years old, we’ve shared a love of baseball. One of our favorite movies when we were kids was Lou Gehrig’s story, “The Pride of the Yankees.” We’ve seen this movie dozens of times.

On July 11, 2021, I was nominated for a Career Excellence Award by the American Baseball Writers Association. It was an incredibly proud moment for me and my family—we grew up in baseball, and my dad, mom, and siblings were probably the only ones who mattered the most to this honor.

But the greatest day of my career was followed by the worst day of my life. The next day, Matt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I cannot say – or write – those words without crying. Our family was destroyed. Matt is the leader of our extended family, the glue that brings everyone together.

Yet every time I break up, I look at my 66-year-old brother who is battling this miserable disease every day without complaint, without pity, without tears. His speech was affected, but he could still control a room by telling stories. His mobility was affected, but he kept mowing his garden until early April. His skill was affected, but he recently got up on a chair and fixed a deformed curtain. His positive attitude has always been his most important asset, and he has been decisive during this ordeal. There are days when I need to be strong, and I’m not, but when Matt sees my pain, he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Tim O, don’t worry about me. I’m a happy man every day.”

He was always at his happiest when he was with the family, or playing baseball, which was often one. Baseball was the primary language we spoke in our home as a child. My dad, Jeff, was a really good player. He taught his three sons to play the game and to love the game. My mother, Joy, became a convert to Islam because she was transporting her children from one square to another.

My older brother, Andy, is one of the greatest players to ever play in Catholic League, a catcher who hits hard with a massive throwing arm. He was inducted into the school’s Athlete’s Hall of Fame in 1999. Matt followed him there, playing four years (1974-78) in Catholicism. Matt was a 5ft 7ft 125lb third man who could hit, run, walk and pick up anything that got in his way. He had a great throwing arm in the league, and despite his sweet and gentle demeanor, he was ripping your throat rather than letting you hit him or his team regardless of the competition. “If we had nine Matt Kurkjians on our squad, we would have won every game,” CU quarterback Val Vandeventer said.

In Matt’s junior year, the 1977 CU team won the ECAC Division I Championship, beating St. John’s hardest, and came in two games from going to Omaha in the College World Series. This team is in the CU Hall of Fame, and everyone around them will tell you that the bravest of that group was Matt Kurkjian.

A few months after Matt’s diagnosis, CU had his first (and only) fall match: a double header at Mount Saint Mary’s on October 1. Ross Natoli, who has won nearly 750 games as head coach for CU’s last 37 games. Years ago, she called me last September to ask if Matt could come to the game and throw the first ceremonial pitch. The first ceremonial pitch is seldom sent off by someone representing the visiting team, but coach Natoli had no trouble convincing Mount Saint Mary’s head coach, Frank Leone, to allow Matt to perform the tribute – especially after describing the huge impact of it. Matt was on the CU Baseball Show.

“Matt is the greatest teammate I ever had,” says Natoli, who played against Matt in college, and with him for six years in the summer in the Maryland Industrial League. Perhaps the most sacred compliment in sports: being an amazing teammate.

Coach Natoli says: “Matt Korkjian is the greatest teammate Ever. “

When Matt heard he was being asked to throw the first ball, he confused him. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has robbed him of the strength and dexterity of his thumb and forefinger in each hand. He had to relearn how to throw a baseball – which is annoying for a man born to throw a baseball. So before the game, I played with him in the front yard (how many times did we do that as kids?). He wrapped his remaining three working fingers around the ball, and within just a few minutes, he was throwing like a ball player.

When we arrive at the field at Mount Saint Mary, Matt is surprised to see his partner, Catherine, his son Michael, and his daughter Lynne. My daughter, Kelly, was there too, as was a close family friend, Mike Tommy, a former player, coach, and scout (and one of the best baseball guys I’ve ever met). Matt asked, “Why are they here?”

A few minutes before the start of the match, coach Natoli presented Matt to the CU jersey. On the back was Matt’s name and the number he wore to college: M. Kurkjian 2. It was an emotional moment. Matt was stunned, but he was deeply flattered. He put on the jersey, walked up the hill, and out of the dirt at the front of the hill, he delivered a sporty punch to the board for top catcher Tyler Shaffer. So, the model died – he refused to fail to get a baseball diamond.

Then came one of the coolest, most powerful moments I’ve had in my 44 years of baseball coverage: As he was walking out of the hill, Matt looked to his right, his entire family wearing matching CU shirts with M2—Gorgician written on the back. Look further to his right and All 47 players The Catholic University team lined up, all wearing CU: M. Kurkjian 2 jerseys. What an appreciation. Matt burst into tears, this was the first time I’ve seen him cry since he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He hugged his family while crying. Coach Natoli hugged him. “This is the best ever,” he said. “I can’t believe they did this to me.”

The days he died in CU were the greatest days of his life.

Now he was looking at every CU player wearing a T-shirt with his name and number on it. And CU, who wore those jerseys both games with a double header, naturally won both games. This is how baseball works.

Then Coach Natoli did it again on April 2. Matt throws the first two-headed ball in CU against Juniata College: another athletic hit, this one by coach Natoli. Only this time, most of the 1977 championship team players were standing next to Matt. It was almost like the first ball gala in October because this time he was surrounded by his teammates and kids, CU’s most decorated team.

“Matt is my best friend,” his classmate Mark Travglini said that day. “Matt is the best teammate.”

This is why baseball is such a beautiful game. It acknowledges the big moments. It celebrates its players – it honors them. He makes sure they know how many people they care. This is what CU Baseball has been doing to my family for 50 years.

Our family kept Matt’s diagnosis quiet for several months. He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him, or to feel sad when they thought of him. But in February, my son, Jeff, a country music radio host, spoke at the ALS fundraiser in Las Vegas. That day, I got a call from the father of Oakland Athletics player Stephen Biscotti, Mike Biscotti, whose wife, Gretchen, died of illness in 2019. I got a call from Mike Crawford, father of Brandon Crawford, father of the San Francisco Giants short, who has a friendship Long with Piscotties and joined their fight. These are two families among the many families in baseball that want to spread awareness, and eventually a cure, for this terrible disease.

At a fundraiser that night, I met Theresa Thurtle, the ambassador for the ALS TDI (Treatment Development Institute). She also offered any help she could give my family. She lost her father and grandmother to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Both were 49.

“This is the worst disease I can be part of,” she told me. “But she has the best support system to be a part of.”

Since his diagnosis, Matt and I have heard from many people providing help, including former minor league defensive player Drew Robinson, who in 2020 survived a suicide attempt and now helps others deal with mental health, illness and tragedy. I spoke with basketball writer Tom Haberstrauh, whose mother, Patty, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Tom was instrumental in making Lou Gehrig’s Day an annual Major League Baseball event. “Whatever you need, call me, any time,” ALS patient Chris Snow, a former baseball writer and now in charge of the Calgary Flames team, told my brother. I hear a lot from my friend, Chicago Cubs/ESPN anchor Jon Sciambi, who runs Project Main St. , which supports ALS patients. John lost his best friend, Tim Sheehy, to ALS in 2007.

One day, I’m going to lose my brother and my best friend to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. My life and the lives of our entire family will never be the same. July 12, 2021 changed everything.

I would give anything for my healthy brother again. But I will never forget the love and support he received from family, friends and strangers. I will never forget what Coach Natoli did for my brother and our family. I will never forget the words of Coach Natoli.

The greatest mate of mine ever.

The greatest teammate ever.

This is my brother and best friend, Matt: the pride of the Kerkjis.

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